10.22pm - Cunning Linguist

Trip Start Apr 01, 2011
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed

Flag of Brazil  , State of Bahia,
Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday 16 April, 10.22pm, Pousada Noa Noa

Did you know that there are more Africans in Bahia than anywhere else outside Africa? (Did you know also that there are more Hawaiians in Las Vegas than in Hawaii and more Jews in New York than there are in Israel? These last have nothing to do with anything, but those three facts run together in my head.) The result is that Salvador has a mix of Afro-Brazilian culture that makes locals rather different to their brothers and sisters in the south. But that's not to say that they don’t fully embrace both sides of their heritage; indeed, they say that if you are a tourist, you go to Carnaval in Rio. If you are a local, you come here, to Salvador. Unfortunately, I just missed Carnaval this year, but since one of my dearest friends, Joanna, is a samba dancer, I’ve had a taste of the shimmy experience with her (albeit in not quite the same bulk as in Brazil).

I’m not staying in the centre of Salvador, but rather just outside, in the beachy suburb of Barra. It’s very quaint – all lighthouses and forts and pretty rocks. They seem to speak a little more slowly here too, or maybe it’s just that more people are pitying me when they hear my badly-accented Portuguese and so they enunciate a little more. Or maybe (and I sort of doubt that this is the case) my Portuguese is getting better? I was given a Portuguese menu tonight at dinner and I was working my way through it quite well. The waiter obviously saw I was taking things excessively slowly, though, and brought me an English menu, and it was good to check back and forth and be like, ahhh, that’s what that means, and hey, I got that right!

So my time in Brazil is almost at an end, and although I have enjoyed it, I am ready to get to a place where they speak Spanish and I can make myself somewhat understood. I’m sure it seems like I’m a bit obsessed with language, but it’s kind of ever present in my mind. In my opinion, there are four levels of foreign language knowledge:

1.       Basic.
This is what I had in Asia. Every time I switched countries, I would learn the words for "Hello", “Yes”, “No”, “Thank you” and “A beer, please”. Believe it or not, with these five phrases, indicating numbers with fingers, and a big grin, you can stumble through most situations. I can’t remember most of them them now, and sometimes “Hello” would get swapped for “Excuse me” or “Sorry” (I used sumimasen far more than konnichiwa in Japan, for example), but since most people along the Banana Pancake Trail speak transactional English (we’ll come to that in a moment), my stilted efforts at using some words of Lao or Thai or Korean, along with the aforementioned big grin, resulted in no end of goodwill from the locals. And if all that fails, never underestimate the power of a low cut top.

2.       Transactional.
This is where I am now in Spanish, and what I am vaguely approaching in Portuguese (by accident; it's purely based on the similarities to Spanish and/or French). I can ask for things in shops, I know the numbers up to a hundred off by heart, I can do the alphabet and colours and basic food items. This stage I call transactional because as a rule, you’re going to be having the same basic conversations over and over again when buying things. You don’t have to have an opinion on the nuclear tests in North Korea, you just have to know how to ask for a glass of house red. The lower end of transactional is straightforward exchanges of, “Can I have this?” “Yes you can.” The higher end are problems (“Can I have this?” “No, for reasons I may or may not explain,” or the one I usually encounter, “Disculpe, es posible tener ese sin queso?”) and haggling. When Colin and I were in the Silk Market in Beijing, he was amazed that the girl selling us a coat was also dealing with a Russian customer at the same time, and therefore clearly spoke at the very least, Mandarin, English and Russian (all languages which are famously easy to learn, natch). I pointed out that she probably couldn’t go to a Russian person’s house for dinner and keep up her end of conversation, but she would have the words for colours, clothing items, prices and sizes all instantly, because those would be the words she used every day. Her Russian was transactional, just like her English.

3.       Conversational.
I believe this is the first step towards actually speaking another language. The other stuff is easy – I went from speaking zero Spanish beyond “si” to transactional within twenty hours. But to actually have a conversation, to go not into complex ideas but certainly to make small talk for more than two minutes, and for the words to feel natural as you say them, that is when you are really getting to grips with the thing. Maybe you still have to resort to your native tongue sometimes, maybe you have to ask for words every few minutes, and remembering every verb form for past and future tenses is probably still a bit advanced, but you can make yourself understood and maybe even crack a few jokes. My goal is to be here by the time I leave Latin America, but it’s hard – I get shy around people that I know speak more fluently than me, and become convinced that they’re rolling their eyes and thinking how thick I am. Inevitably, I lapse back into English. Not really ideal.

4.       Fluency.
Ah, the magical final level. Goal of all language students from the dawn of time – for your second, third, or tenth language to just fly out of your mouth as easily as your first one does. To be able to read books in the new language. To dream, think, and – the ultimate goal – make jokes involving wordplay, all in a foreign tongue. The time between the conversational level and fluency can of course take years, if not a lifetime, and the really annoying thing is that as soon as you stop using it every day, you’ll find it starts to slip out of your head. My French was a lot better ten years ago – I’m probably slightly better than transactional still but I used to be fully conversational. Unfortunately, whilst I can still watch the bits of Eddie Izzard that are in French and appreciate them just as much as the bits that are in English (“Qu’est-ce que vous dītes, vous cassette??”), having long and detailed chats is way beyond me. When I started learning Spanish, I discovered that I had a lot more French than I thought – every time my brain reached for the not-English word, it kept coming up with French instead of Spanish. After a few weeks, I started battering down the French, though, and now I find I have the opposite problem – if I try and think in French, I start saying pero instead of mais or con instead of avec. It is certainly doable to hold more than one secondary language in your head at a time – plenty of people can – it’s just difficult when neither of them is that strong to begin with. But it’s an achievable goal, and one I aim to meet before I’m 30. Who knows – maybe after I’ve cracked Spanish, I will take another run at French. Why not, eh?

The best thing about going to Argentina will be that I will be hearing Spanish every day, so even if I can’t always find the right response, I have no doubt that within a few weeks I’ll be able to understand a lot more than I can right now. The last time I was in France, I was translating French to English quite happily for my friend Hollie when we went to a market, but going back the other way was more difficult and involved a lot more hand gestures.

The other thing I’m excited about is that I’m meeting my friends Sasha and Alex in Buenos Aires in a couple of days. We haven’t seen each other since the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan, and I had no idea they were even in South America until some photos from Chile popped up on Facebook. Last I heard, they were working on a farm in New Zealand, so it was most exciting to see that our paths would cross again on another continent. You are constantly meeting people on the road, but it’s rare to find folks you really enjoy spending time with, so this should be good. And after Sasha’s past language successes (bellowing “TUK-TUK??” at some nonplussed Laotians after several buckets in Vang Vieng), I can’t wait to see her in a land where no-one speaks English.
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Comments

Shelagh on

Glad to know you are Ok. Still waiting for the post card. Great you have plans to meet friends. Love Grandma

dini123 on

Boonus deeaz.

Pater Deux on

Bonkers Dinis, even.

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